When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.
This African adage poignantly depicts a significant though comparatively underrated national loss suffered when virulent pathogenic illnesses take from us the elderly — the bedrock of our society and our cultural consciousness.
Annually, those 65 and older most often fall victim to serious complications from the flu, due in part to weakening immune systems with age.
Threats to health and life for this age group are now further compounded by the impact of COVID-19.
In the United States and Italy, the countries with the highest COVID-19 death counts respectively, fatalities are highest in those 65 and older, and in The Bahamas, 63 percent of deaths fall within this age group.
As countries scramble to contain the economic and fiscal fallout brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be deliberate in evaluating attitudes about our country’s older population and the extent to which we have relegated this invaluable segment of our human capital to the bitter background of ageism.
Our elderly are our living legacy as Bahamians and the carriers of oral histories the depth of which our grandest literature cannot adequately capture.
When we ask what it means to be Bahamian, and when we scour the annals of academia in search of secrets to cultural longevity, we need look no further than the older among us, whose wisdom, life experience and fortitude can help guide us to progress if we would only take the time to listen.
With an average life expectancy of 75 years, Bahamians can potentially enjoy many years of productivity and usefulness, but over time there has emerged a view in our society that once people reach a certain age, they have outlived that usefulness in their country and should disappear, taking all their knowledge and capacity with them.
Even our retired politicians, with institutional knowledge and acumen to spare, cannot escape this relegation to the back seat of Bahamian society.
More and more young Bahamians look at our older population as burdens and stumbling blocks to progress rather than celebrating and honoring them for having endured to long life, the trials and triumphs of life as is done in cultures throughout the world.
In this societal vein, it is an oft bemoaned truism in the workplace that many older, longstanding employees are unwilling to relinquish the reins for those who must succeed them, and the reasons for this are diverse.
But one reason that is often overlooked is that in a society where your worth and consequence are devalued past a certain age, it is understandable from a psychological perspective why some older Bahamians seek to hold onto a key source of identity in their life — their job.
Ongoing lockdowns and recent shopping schedules ordered by government have provided regrettable insight into how our older population is viewed by a goodly number of younger Bahamians.
Time slots designated for the elderly were not respected at various establishments, with younger residents insisting on not being made to wait for older shoppers to have their time, a painful demonstration of the level of regard some have for the elderly.
When The Bahamas followed the example of other jurisdictions in designating shopping periods for the elderly, the rationale was to cater to the special needs of our older residents, and to give them the opportunity to shop free of crowds of potential asymptomatic carriers.
This is why, as we referenced yesterday, the prime minister’s latest decision regarding shopping schedules for both the elderly and the disabled is unhelpful.
To hem both these vulnerable groupings into a two-hour early morning window of 6 a.m to 8 a.m, will no doubt create additional challenges for those with limited mobility and access, even as it provides the younger and more able-bodied among us with as much as an 11-hour daily window in which to shop.
We call our elderly our “precious pearls”.
But the irony about our regard for pearls is though they are of great value, they are very often hidden and only brought to the fore on special occasions.
Our older population deserves more in their country than periods where they are tolerated and accommodated, but are otherwise ignored or marginalized.
They deserve honor, respect and a rightful place of inclusion in their country befitting both their value as individuals, and the value they can still bring to the evolution of nation building.